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The danger of leaving Joseph behind
Today is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Christmas is next Sunday. Tonight is also the first night of Hanukkah. It seems a good day to consider the story of Joseph in Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus — since Matthew is known as the most Jewish of the four gospels.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
More than two decades ago, we had trouble selling our house in Memphis, Tennessee. A Catholic colleague told us about the popular belief that St. Joseph is the patron saint of real estate. On his suggestion, we bought a small statue of St. Joseph and buried it in the front garden. We’re good Protestants but we were getting desperate. “What’s the harm?” my husband laughed. “We need to sell this place.”
A few weeks later, the house sold. Not long after that, we packed up our car and headed to Virginia.
Somewhere beyond Nashville, many miles from Memphis, I blurted out: “Oh no! We left St. Joseph in the yard! We forgot him!”
“I bet we’re not the first,” my husband said with an ironic tone.
We drove on, leaving Joseph behind in the dirt. As far as I know, he still lies there, neglected and unremembered.
* * * * *
It almost doesn’t need to be said that Christians do much the same with Joseph in the Christmas story. We sing of and extol Mary. But Joseph remains in the background, like a film extra with only a few lines.
Except this year. In Matthew’s birth account, read every third year in the lectionary cycle, Joseph gets a brief starring role. Mary is off-stage, an unwed and pregnant teen-age girl. Responsible Joseph, the wronged fiancé, is about to quietly put her aside, hoping that she will endure less ridicule and punishment for pregnancy. But an angel appears to him in a dream, and asks Joseph to name the child and take mother and son to be his family.
Joseph says yes. And the baby is born: Emmanuel, God-with-us, the promise of Israel.
* * * * *
During my freshman year in college, the first New Testament class I ever took began with studying Matthew. I went to an evangelical Christian college. In order to be a professor or student there, one needed to assent to things like biblical inerrancy and traditional doctrines like the virgin birth.
I’ll never forget an early lecture on Matthew by the most esteemed member of the religious studies department, an expert on the subject. The professor underscored that Matthew was the most Jewish of all the gospels — written for a Jewish audience, full of Jewish scripture and historical references, and recording the tensions between early Jewish-Christians and other Jews.
Whenever I read Matthew, I remember his main point: Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels.
Imagine, for a moment, being a first century Jew and hearing a story about a man named Joseph to whom an angel appeared in a dream. Surely, your first thought wouldn’t be of a man with a problematic betrothal. You’d be thinking of that other Joseph — the one who had many dreams — in Genesis.
Of course, that’s the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, whose brothers assaulted him, sold him into slavery, and lied to their father about his death. Joseph’s Egyptian master’s wife accused him of rape and he was thrown into prison. While jailed, Joseph gained a reputation as a dream interpreter and came to the attention of Pharaoh, who elevated him to be a government official. In that position, Joseph saved Egypt from famine.
But Joseph’s own family was still suffering from famine in Canaan. His brothers came to Egypt begging for help, unaware of either the survival or success of their long-lost relative. Through a complicated series of events, however, Joseph and his brothers become reconciled — and, as a result, his family settled on rich, productive land in Egypt and prospered.
Although his brothers worried that Joseph would never forgive them, at the climax of their reunion, their wronged sibling proclaimed, “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Joseph, whom they abused and cast-off, wound up their protector and provider.
Indeed, Joseph’s name implies both protection and prosperity — the Hebrew root word asaf, means “to gather, collect, bring in, or assemble.” A related word with this same root is asif, meaning “harvest.”
In the same way that Genesis’s Joseph gathered and protected Israel “that many should be kept alive,” so Matthew’s Joseph gathered in and protected Mary and her child, the hope of Israel, that many would be saved.
What was meant for evil, God meant for good.
* * * * *
But I suspect that when Matthew evoked the Joseph in connection with Mary’s Joseph, he might be pointing toward something even more radical than protecting and providing.
There was an ugly rumor around Jesus’ birth — that Jesus was the son of Mary through either an indiscretion with or a rape by a Roman soldier. There is some historical confusion as to whether Christians first claim divine conception and their critics then smear Mary with some sexual shame or the converse — Mary’s adultery or rape led to a virgin birth tale to cover for Mary’s integrity. Whatever the case, the salacious story was out there (and shows up in ancient sources).
Matthew did not shy away from the scandal. Indeed, he framed his entire gospel with the gossip. Mary was “found to be with child” before their marriage with the father unknown, “from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew could have ignored it; he could have chosen not to give it any credence. But he puts it right out front, essentially the opening line in the first narrative of Jesus’ life.
Contemporary scholars, like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, suggest that Matthew draws on the suspected adultery in order to draw a parallel between Jewish traditions of Moses’ birth. In Jewish tradition, stories of Moses’ birth feature his parents’ divorce, a divine revelation, and remarriage. When placed side-by-side, Matthew suggestively identifies “Jesus as the new Moses,” a significant theological theme in his gospel.
That’s interesting. But what if it is even simpler than that? What if Matthew is throwing the attack back in the critics’ faces? Consider Matthew arguing with Jesus’ detractors:
I know what you are saying about Mary and Jesus. I know you think she’s unworthy, raped by a Roman soldier, a victim of oppression, soiled as a woman — and that her son is a bastard. But you know what? It doesn’t ultimately matter if you think that the adultery or rape is true because what was meant for evil, God meant for good.
Joseph of old had been betrayed, thrown aside, and cast off, yet nevertheless he remained faithful, and rose to protect and save a family. So this Joseph, seemingly betrayed by Mary, thrown aside for another man, and cast into ignominy, nevertheless remained faithful, and rose to protect and save a family. When Mary’s Joseph chooses to embrace her, he does so at his own cost. In effect, marrying Mary lowers his status and reputation — and perhaps even prospects — among his people.
It isn’t just about protection and prosperity, a story that lends itself to a sort of sentimental patriarchy too often trafficked by the church when it comes to Jesus’ earthly father. Instead, the first Joseph and Mary’s Joseph find themselves among the powerless, as men without privilege, their positions in society stripped from them, essentially forced into community with the enslaved and fallen women.
The stories of Joseph and Joseph emerge as powerful narratives about rejection, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration — rising above the suffering birthed in the worst of betrayals, and made possible in and through the mysterious presence of the Spirit, the Giver of Dreams to those in prison and those in the dark.
Yes, there is a Moses-Jesus parallel in Matthew, but the more obvious parallel is Joseph-Joseph: What was meant for evil, God meant for good.
These words thunder from Genesis down through the centuries to Matthew. The Gospel of Luke gives us Mary’s song and the angel’s “peace on earth, good will to humankind.” But Joseph’s chorus, too often forgotten by even the church, rises from the hidden, buried places of our lives: What was meant for evil, God meant for good.
It may not be an angelic proclamation, rather more like the guttural growl of oppression insisting that brutality and betrayal are not the final word. That is is truly Advent’s earthquake of hope.
God is with us.
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All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.
— W.H. Auden, from “The Temptation of Joseph,” in For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
The Gospel describes Joseph as a “righteous man,” which is to say, a man devoted to God, and concerned with clean, ethical living. Though Matthew doesn’t elaborate, I think we can safely assume that Mary’s bethrothed is not a guy who likes to make waves, or call attention to himself, or venture too close to controversy. Like most of us, he wants an orderly life. He’s honest and hardworking. He follows the rules. He practices justice and fairness, and all he wants in exchange is a “normal,” uncomplicated life. Is that too much to ask?
Poor Joseph. Does he remind you of anyone you know?
— Debi Thomas, “Into the Mess”
It was from Joseph first I learned
of love. Like me he was dismayed.
How easily he could have turned
me from his house; but, unafraid,
he put me not away from him
(O God-sent angel, pray for him).
Thus through his love was Love obeyed.
The Child’s first cry came like a bell:
God’s Word aloud, God’s Word in deed.
The angel spoke: so it befell,
and Joseph with me in my need.
O Child whose father came from heaven,
to you another gift was given,
your earthly father chosen well.
With Joseph I was always warmed
and cherished. Even in the stable
I knew that I would not be harmed.
And, though above the angels swarmed,
man’s love it was that made me able
to bear God’s love, wild, formidable,
to bear God’s will, through me performed.
— Madeleine L’Engle, “O Sapientia”
Forgetting nothing and believing all,
You must behave as if this were not strange at all.
Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred…
The Exceptional is always usual
And the Usual exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.
— W.H. Auden, from “The Temptation of Joseph,” in For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe.
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago.
Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not tear us apart.
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts.
— Peter, Paul, and Mary, "Light One Candle"
Written by Peter Yarrow
With the rise of antisemitism in the United States and around the world, it is a moral and theological necessity for Christians to recognize, understand, and honor the roots of our faith in Judaism and the Jewish insights and wisdom that shape the stories of Jesus, the writings of the New Testament, and early Christianity.
From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 28, 2022:
“In unequivocal terms, we condemn any and all violence directed at the Jewish people, whether motivated by religious, racial, or political grievances. We furthermore denounce any rhetoric which seeks to demonize or dehumanize the Jewish people or Judaism as a religious tradition. We continue to remind ourselves of the shared spiritual patrimony that remains the foundation of our relationship with the Jewish people. . . It must always be remembered that Jesus, Mary, and his apostles were all Jewish.”